Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
Writing is hard in the best of times and feels exponentially more difficult when things are hard. The mind wanders to dark places and fills with troubling thoughts, many of them reasonable. There is little comfort in knowing everyone is feeling much the same way. You feel it, even as you stare at a blank screen or a half-filled page and think, I have time, why can’t I do this?
Why? Because your demonic self-critic known as the Watcher at the Gates says you can’t. Your Watcher tells you, “How can you write when the world feels as if it’s falling apart? And while we’re at it,” it continues, “who cares about your story now? Is it about Covid-19? No? How dare you?”
You sheepishly reply, “Maybe you’re right.”
But you’re wrong. Your Watcher, seizing on your vulnerability, spots a yawning chasm though which it can undermine you.
So right now, even at this truly difficult and frightening time, it is all the more imperative that you gird yourself for battle against your Watcher. This crisis is going to go on for a while. So best to be ready; because if not today, or even tomorrow or next week, it will be time to write.
You cannot will your Watcher away; it is counterproductive to try. Anxiety -- the fear of failure -- is a static emotion fueled by memory and resistance. Fighting anxiety, which takes the form of your Watcher, only makes it stronger.
Better to fool it, like this:
When your Watcher sees you at the keyboard and asks what you think you’re up to – “are you trying to write?” – do not nod your head and say, “well yeah, sorry, don’t know what I was thinking.’
Instead, reply that you’re doing nothing of the sort. Tell it: “I’m just writing a letter. Because, dear Watcher, you know that doesn’t count.”
“Damn, you’ve got me there,” your Watcher will surely reply.
I know this to be so because for the past seven years I have forced hundreds of students to con their Watchers just this way. I have stopped having students write what the wonderful Anne Lamott calls, “shitty first drafts.” Instead I have them write me letters, in which they distill what they have found out in, say, a week of reporting. And even though they know that they are, in fact, committing an act of writing by putting words and sentences on a page, they nonetheless do not experience it as writing.
And paradoxically, that is when they begin to write. Often in their own, singular voices.
I, and all those many students, owe this Watcher-blunting approach to a former student, Yepoka Yeebo.
In the fall of 2013, Yepoka stopped to say hello – which is what former students often say when they have a problem they want to talk out. She was living in London and had recently returned from Ghana, the country her family had fled before she was born. Yepoka felt there was a story to be told about Ghana, in particular its capital city, Accra. She just didn’t know what it was.
I listened as Yepoka just talked about Accra. She told me that in the middle of the city there was a vast, fetid slum. It even had a name: Sodom and Gomorrah. My interest was piqued. Sodom and Gomorrah sounded catchy, as in – good for a 1200-word feature. But not, I felt, for something bigger.
She went on to describe the slum and as she did, she mentioned, almost in passing, that because it was so large, and because it was literally bisected by a river of shit, it had long been impossible to get from one side to the other until a couple of brothers from the north came up with the idea of building a bridge.
The first bridge, she explained, was made of wood and washed away in a storm. The brothers replaced it with a metal bridge that held. Everyone started to use the bridge and even after the brothers began to charge tolls – school children and the elderly crossed for free – the foot traffic did not lessen. In fact, the bridge became so central to life in Sodom and Gomorrah that it was possible to take in much of the energy, commerce and humanity with which the slum pulsated, just by parking yourself on the bridge and watching.
Like Yepoka, I did not know what the story was. And like her, I sensed there was something there. I suggested that when she returned to Accra, she hang out at the bridge, and after a week or two of watching, listening and talking to people, she write me a letter. I do not know why I suggested a letter; it just made sense.
Her first letter arrived two months later and it was a revelation. It was 15,000 words long. She mentioned a man named Yusef, who was serving as an informal guide.
Here is a bit of what she wrote: “We turned back towards the bridge and realized there were shacks inside the dump: Yusuf said he had a friend living there, so we went over. Musah was the first person to move onto the flat bit of land between the mountain range of trash at the edge of the dump and the lagoon. Before that, it was an open-air public toilet. ‘He's the landlord of this area,’ Yusuf said by way of introduction. The landlord was diminutive and dark, with work-roughened hands and tired eyes. We found him hanging out in a sun shelter: plastic tarps propped up by four timber supports. There were a few other people inside, smoking and napping on benches. I gave him the spiel, then asked a couple of questions. His expression grew dark (I'd read that so many times, but never understood it until that moment) and he said we should go sit somewhere else: there was too much smoke in the shelter.”
There are about a thousand wonderful things happening in this paragraph, and of all of them, what I most love is that Yepoka, who works primarily in video, was writing in a way that was not in the least bit self-conscious. She wasn’t thinking about writing; she was just doing it without the often-crippling regard to form and convention.
I asked her to send me another letter. She did. Then she sent another and another. In the years since, I’ve used Yepoka as a benchmark: if a writer is serious they will continue sending regular letters. If not, the letters will stop. By the time she was done, Yepoka had sent 64,000 words of letters. And from that she extracted 15,000 words that became a story – a story that, in fact, she had been writing all along.
I keep a print out of all those letters near my desk so when a new writer, or student comes in I can show them just what I mean: how it took this writer months to find her story, and by sending letters and not waiting to “write” she was able to distill what she was learning, all the while connecting the various points of her reporting into a cohesive, compelling and transporting narrative.
And best of all, her Watcher barely took notice.
More on the letters in the next chapter.
In the meantime, an invitation to write – and yes, in a way that will hone your Watcher-battling skills.
Based on the enthusiastic response to the invitation to write “Flash Non-Fiction” in our last newsletter we’re offering a new prompt and with it, the same challenge:
Write no more than 250 words. All of them true based on memory or reporting.
Give yourself no more than 30 minutes.
Once you’re done, send it to us by replying to this email. We won’t edit but we will screen for offensive content. Deadline is Wednesday, April 21st.
This week’s prompt: I am holding a photo…
Finally, we want to continue offering reading alternatives to the difficult, frightening and depressing stories that consume so much of what we now read.
This week, a story from our archives – fittingly, Yepoka Yeebo’s story: The Bridge to Sodom and Gomorrah.
We hope you enjoy reading it as much as she enjoyed telling it.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.